A Matter of Style

There is no one way to do description.

Description, like any other aspect of writing depends on the writer’s style. There are ways to manipulate description based on punctuation, word choice, and so on but ultimately how much or how little there is depends on the writer’s style. For instance, Hemmingway was very much bare-bones when it came to description but Dickens had a lot of description. We can argue that these writers came from different times with different styles of their own, which is true but once again the keyword is style. It is also true that both techniques, and a myriad of others, are still used by modern writers depending upon their style.

There are instances where lots of description can be tricky to pull off, the obvious ones are scenes with lots of movement like fight scenes, but this doesn’t mean that a writer who uses a lot of description is wrong. Just as a writer who doesn’t use a lot of description when they could do is wrong. Description is as much about placement as it is about the words we use.

We can build instances where the characters consider their surroundings; they could be looking out of a coffee shop window and watching what’s happening on the street. They might be thinking about something, there could be an awkward pause, or they might just enjoy people watching. If the description is built into the scene as necessary then a lot of description can work well. However, if we have a rapidly moving scene like an argument or a fight then long description would create a long pause which can feel unintentionally awkward because it would create a pause in the action.

Similarly there may be moments where a bare-bones writer might need to use more description to slow the pace down. However, this doesn’t mean they have to go from Hemmingway levels to Dickens levels of description. If a writer who doesn’t use much description uses slightly more description at the right moment, such as that coffee scene, it will slow the pace without huge amounts of description. In fact if a story went from Hemmingway levels to Dickens levels it runs the risk of losing the flow of the narrative because it would be such a huge change. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, we might have two character’s perspectives one of whom is more descriptive then the other. We would have to be aware of the risk but if we develop the voices effectively then we may be able to pull it off. Once again this would be a style choice because these two characters would have two different styles when telling they reader their story,

We may prefer one style over the other but it’s important to remember that when we’re writing the way one writer uses description doesn’t mean we have to write ours the same way. It can help to develop our own by experimenting with different styles of description but I would emphasise that this is to develop our own style.

While on this note it’s important to remember that when we edit other people’s work we don’t impose our style on them. This doesn’t mean we can’t point out things such as where they’ve used too many words and it effects the narrative or go off on a descriptive tangent. What we can’t do is say that our way is the only way.


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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